Thursday, December 6, 2007

Finding Funboy by Matt Golec


by Matt Golec

Chapter 1

Summer Bike-theft Season

Gets Underway in Portland

by August Frank III, staff writer

Greg Reynolds left his bike unattended for only a minute, but that was all it took.

"I had to return a book I'd bought for my wife's birthday. It's such a nice day, I didn't think about anyone stealing my bike," said Reynolds, 32, of Portland.

"My mistake," he said.

Like auto thefts, the number of bicycles reported stolen in the city of Portland has actually fallen in recent years, according to police statistics. But those statistics don't comfort riders who dust off their bikes after a long, Maine winter only to have them stolen.

"Thieves aren't stupid," said Maine Frame Bikes manager Andrea Wynne, commenting on the summer spike in bicycle thefts. "That's when the bikes come out."

--from The Portland Post, 7/17/99

The night JFK Jr.'s plane went down was a hot, sticky mess.

Not that I knew at the time. I mean, I knew it was hot and sticky the whole goddamn summer had been like that but I didn't find out about John-John until Saturday, the day after he died.

No, I'd worked late Friday at my night job and slept even later the next morning. The hot, humid air had hit me like a brick-in-a-blanket as soon as I sat up in bed, and I couldn't even bring myself to turn on CNN ("I figured you'd turn on CNN," my dad told me later) to hear the news. I brushed my teeth while thinking about going to my dad's gym at least they had air conditioning, and a lap pool but the sweat streaming out of my armpits told me I'd probably get enough exercise that day just breathing.

Instead, I wandered around the corner to the Eastern Promenade, a sprawling public lawn overlooking Casco Bay on Portland's old east end. From time to time, the wind stirred the thick soup of a day, dredging up a briny smell that was either low tide or the pair of lawn-mowing sneakers that I'd slipped on before leaving the house. Just to be safe, I kicked off my sneakers before settling down with two peaches and an onion bagel smothered in bacon-cheese spread.

Sitting in the shade of a thick red maple, I killed the next couple hours with The Boys of Summer it was simply too hot to read anything I hadn't read a thousand times before and then stumbled back home, where I found six messages on the answering machine and my pager chirping madly for my attention.

The first two messages were from my dad, who was standing in as weekend editor at the paper--the rest were hang-ups.

First message: "Gus, it's dad. Get up. Get out of bed. We need you in here. Call me when you get this message."

Second message: "Gus, pick up the phone. It's important. Call me immediately."

The phone rang again, but I ignored it while scrambling for the TV remote. CNN, MSNBC, even the Weather Channel had it JFK Jr.'s plane had disappeared last night off Martha's Vineyard while en route to a wedding. No bodies yet, but everyone was presuming the worst.

Standing barefoot in my living room, staring at the TV with a cold, bleeding glass of water pressed up against my chest that's how I learned he was dead and gone. I picked up the phone and told my dad I was on my way.

* * * *

A scant 14 hours later, it was home again, home again, jiggity-jig. With the lack of sleep and the fact that I wasn't supposed to work Saturdays, I had every right to be cranky walking home alone in the predawn morning. But as a reporter, you slog through school board meetings and church bazaars and a zillion weather features (Typical question: "It's been awfully hot/cold/windy/mild/wet/dry lately; how do you feel about that?") just so you can tackle big stories like this one.

It's all worth it. Sure the hours blow, and yes, everything you've heard about the pay is true, but once in a while you give people the information they need, either to understand an important event or to make their world a better place, and that's a privilege you can't buy unlike, say, leather-trim seats for a new BMW.

I've drawn attention to hotels trying to sneak up on public waterfront property, I helped a deaf telephone linemen with two years left until retirement keep his job, and once I made sure the undergrads at my school (University of Wisconsin at Madison, a.k.a. Mad City) got the birth control benefits they'd paid for with their student fees.

Plus you get your name in the paper, which chicks seem to dig.

JFK Jr.'s plane crash was probably the biggest news story I'd ever been involved in, even if The Portland Post (the Post-Record on Sundays, to remind readers that we'd swallowed the afternoon Maine Record about 15 years back) didn't exactly sit in the eye of the storm. Still, the Kennedys were like the Celtics or Red Sox all of New England claimed ownership, even if they lived a state line or two away. It was a real kick to feel like you were part of the main news of the day.

I barely saw my dad that night as managing editor running a weekend skeleton crew, he had his hands pretty full.

"Go speak with Marti," he said, his gray, ink-smudged shirtsleeves rolled up past his elbows. Despite the AC, the newsroom grew steamy in the depths of July. "She'll have something for you."

Marti Jacobs, the chain-smoking city editor whose sizzled gray hair looked like the butt end of a cigarette, had something and a half for me. Within ten minutes I was on the phone, chasing down single-engine pilots to find out why JFK Jr. shouldn't have flown when he did. I threw together a sidebar for the main story, and then took off on a twenty-incher exploring how local priests and pastors planned to make sense of this new Kennedy tragedy to their Sunday congregations.

I'd just filed my last story to Marti's computer basket and was feeling good despite the hectic pace (or maybe because of it the deadline pressure is half the fun) when a familiar hand clapped me on the shoulder.

"Gus, my boy," my dad said. "How'd you like to perform a great service for our readers?"

I groaned loud enough for them to hear me in Fenway's cheap seats; I knew what he wanted. After a hard day's work on my day off, no less I was being flipped over to the copy desk for a second shift.

The copy desk was a fun place to hang out, but I wouldn't want to work there not permanently, anyway. I liked checking over all the stories before they went in the next day's paper, I liked the laid-back attitude that belied the rolling page deadlines, and I loved the hours: 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. Could there be better summer schedule for a young man not quite out of college? One drawback outweighed all the benefits, however: I didn't like having to polish somebody else's stories. I'd much rather be out reporting my own.

So I dragged my feet a little as my father walked me over to the desk. "I've been working an awful lot this week," I said. "Aren't there, like, labor laws you have to follow?"

"You're an intern," he said, grinning wickedly despite his sagging eyes. "We could have you waxing our desks eighty hours a week if we decided that met our educational obligations."

Dad slipped me a twenty for food later, and I sat down with the rest of the desk, checking copy, writing headlines and shipping pages to beat the 1 a.m. press start.

* * * *

I meant to go home right after work, really I did I hadn't been kidding when I told dad I'd been working a lot but the guys teased me about being too young to go out with them for a few drinks. I had to show them my ID to prove that I'd turned 21 a few months ago, and then they didn't believe the ID was real so we had to go to a few bars to make sure I could get past the bouncers well, you get the picture.

I didn't drink the entire twenty dollars my father gave me, but I had more change than dollars in my pocket by the time it was all over. Mark Mason (who, after a few days of acquaintance, will casually ask you to call him 'Mace'), the photo intern who had given me a ride to work, passed out in some downtown apartment we'd ended up in and wouldn't wake up enough to tell any of us where he'd parked his car. Since the buses had stopped running hours ago and I couldn't afford a taxi, I decided to walk the mile or so home.

I bitched about it to the guys before leaving, but really I didn't mind. The air smelled salty and cool, which was reason enough after running laps through the hot, smoky confines of Portland's summer bar circuit. Hiking up Munjoy Hill toward the Eastern Prom and my house, I imagined I could just see an orangish hint of dawn out over Casco Bay.

I stopped at the newsbox on the corner of my street and looked for my name on the front page. It was there small, and attached to the sidebar instead of the main story but I'd made it above the fold, and that was always worth smiling about.

Satisfied, I cut across the neighbor's lawn toward our driveway, looking forward to a pleasant day's sleep, and nearly fell on my face tripping over a U-shaped bike lock, hiding like a snake in the damp grass.

My bike lock. Open. Unlocked. And not even remotely attached to my bicycle.

"Shit," was all I could think to say as I scanned the driveway for well, I don't know what was I looking for. Footprints? Tire tracks? A goddamn trail of breadcrumbs? None of them were there.

With a pit growing in my stomach, I opened the side door to the garage where I kept my bike. We never locked the garage door, because it seemed every time we did somebody smashed the windows to get at the old newspapers, mismatched lumber, broken lawn mowers and other junk my dad kept in there ("I only wish they'd carted away more of it," my mother told the police after a break-in).

I waded through the darkened garage until I found the three solid iron rings set into the cement floor that my dad, brother and I had installed so we'd have a place to lock our bikes. My dad's bike was probably with him at work; I assumed he wasn't coming home tonight. My brother had taken his with him to Boston, although as a general surgery resident I didn't know when he found the time to ride it.

All three rings stood empty. My bike was gone.

What a way to end the night. I was overtired, overworked, and now, at four in the morning, I'd just found out my only reliable source of transportation was gone. I threw the bike lock into a dark corner of the garage and listened to it smash against whatever crap my dad had stacked there. JFK Jr. was lost at sea, and I didn't feel so good myself.

I stormed outside and unlocked the door to our 'antique' house in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood. "Three stories of house on a one-story lot," is how my dad described the tall, narrow home that we'd lived in since I'd been born.

With its views of the bay you had to lean a bit out the window, admittedly and location within striking distance of the Prom, our house was worth a bit of money. My parents had bought it for a song back in the '70s, during the fire sale that was Portland's real estate market. The economy had soured, and I guess Portland's future didn't look so bright that's what I've been told, anyway. Property used to be there for the taking, but like in so many other places, the economic growth in the '80s and '90s changed everything. Now I have friends who can't afford a shoebox to rent, let alone buy, in this town.

Not that we lived in an exclusive neighborhood. A few blocks away and out of sight of Casco Bay, the houses morphed into tightly-packed duplexes with pale blue aluminum siding, parking for Irish only signs taped in the windows, and brick sidewalks for front lawns. Italian mom-and-pop stores (where you can't buy a sub, grinder or hero for all the olive oil in Sicily here in Portland, we call them Italian sandwiches) kept the neighborhood in fresh pizza, cold milk and cheap beer. Over the years, Munjoy Hill has held on to its solid, working class roots, and the smart money bet against the scattered efforts at gentrification.

I grabbed Saturday's mail on the way inside and threw it down on the breakfast table. I was still pissed about my bike, and I hoped the distraction of sorting mail would give me time to cool off so I could get some sleep.

I picked through my parents' bills, dimly aware that after graduating next year, these same bills would be arriving with my name on them. I tossed the ad circulars, missing children postcards and a J-Crew catalog (I ordered a shirt from J-Crew four years ago, and since then, I'm sure I've burned through twice any profit they made on me in printing and postage costs) into the recycling. I kept the pizza delivery coupons and began to page through the latest issue of the New Yorker when I noticed a lumpy envelope that was hand addressed to me.

There wasn't a postmark, or even a stamp whatever it was, it had been delivered in person. I tore the envelope in half and dumped the contents the bike lock key I kept hidden in the garage, and the key to a car onto the breakfast table.

The envelope had no return address, and there was no note, but the handwriting was all Funboy.

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